Irreconcilable differences

Last time I taught a seminar on pragmatism, I began to doubt that it made sense to see “pragmatism” as a movement and blogged about the fundamental differences between Peirce’s and James’ positions. I’m teaching pragmatism again, and the differences are even more salient this time.

What follows is a somewhat rambling discussion of differences between Peirce and James on method, on truth, and in their general outlook.

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Bentham’s philosophical remains

Back in the 90s, when I wanted to move my website off university servers, I brainstormed possible domain names. I settled on fecundity partly just because it sounds good, but also because I learned the word from reading Jeremy Bentham. A webcam pointed at Bentham’s dressed-up remains was a highlight of the internet back then, and the association amused me.

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Multiple choice allows for objective grading

The Introductory Philosophy Quiz has been on my website pretty much since the beginning, and it was a transcription of a quiz that Ryan and I had on the office wall. The following question occurred to me while I was proctoring an exam today, and I couldn’t resist adding it.

Select the best answer.

  • A. B is the best answer.
  • B. A is the best answer.
  • C. There is an instability between A and B; although it is not entirely satisfactory, the best answer is to select one of them randomly or arbitrarily.

Pragmatism texts

I’m teaching a seminar on pragmatism again this semester, so I’ve updated some of the texts in my pragmatism and American philosophy repository. My habits for using git are terrible, so lots of small changes got swept together in one giant update.

The big addition is LaTeX and PDF files for William Clifford’s “The Ethics of Belief.” Although it’s in the public domain, I was unable to find an unabridged version anywhere on the net.1 So I spent some time today making one.2 Starting from OCR on a scan of the 19th-century original, I fixed the formatting, cleaned up the transcription, and whatnot. There may still be some errors, but it’s better than anything else I could find.

The update also adds the third lecture to James’ Pragmatism.

Curation

In a recent blog post, Les Green draws a distinction between research and scholarship. The former he characterizes as “[finding] out something [you] didn’t know, but which was there to be known”; the latter involves keeping up with the literature and making novel arguments. He distinguishes both of those from another thing philosophers do which he calls curating. He characterizes it this way:

A curator attempts to care for knowledge and culture we already have. Not by freezing it or ensuring no others can touch it, but by conserving it while placing it in a new context, or displaying it from a new angle, or in the company of new ideas, so as to make it intelligible and perhaps useful to those who follow us.

This captures an important feature of philosophy which is absent from (e.g) physics.1

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Inflate and explode, analyze or explicate

Over at The Splintered Mind, Eric Schwitzgebel identifies what he calls the inflate-and-explode maneuver. Abstractly, the move is this: “Assume that things of Type X must have Property A, and then argue that nothing has Property A.”

Schwitzgebel is especially interested in the case of consciousness. On many accounts, one is supposed to have infallible access to the contents of one’s consciousness. However, one doesn’t have infallible access to anything. Having thus inflated consciousness with the pompous swell of infallibility, one blows it up— there is no such thing as consciousness!

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Personal interpretation

In a post at Cover Me, Riley Haas describes Depeche Mode’s 1990 song Personal Jesus as having “sex appeal with a sinister undercurrent of dominance and submission.” Michelle Kash, whose cover is featured in the post, “said she aimed to turn it from a song about a man dominating every aspect of a woman’s life to a song about sexual freedom.”

There’s breathy sex appeal in the original, sure, but I had always thought of that as just Depeche Mode being Depeche Mode. They could write a song about standing in line at the Orange Julius, and it would have sex appeal and an undercurrent of D&S.

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